Why We Welcome Converts
Those who join the Jewish people on its historic spiritual journey should be embraced without a calculation of the benefits they bring. They should be welcomed just for their choice to become Jewish.
It is also important to note that in Judaism there is no religious distinction between someone born Jewish and someone who chooses Judaism. There are, to be sure, immense differences among the various streams of Judaism about who can preside over a conversion and what the requirements are for conversion. But within any given movement once the movement’s requirements are met a convert should not be separated out as different from born Jews. It is therefore awkward to write about converts to Judaism as a separate group rather than calling them what they are: members of the Jewish people. Their unique contributions are considered below with the understanding that a convert’s status is as a genuine and full Jew.
With all that in mind, it is also true that converts to Judaism provide a variety of important contributions to the Jewish people beyond the inherent value of their own individual selves. Here are some of those benefits:
Converts add increased numbers to those who support the Jewish community. This support comes in three forms: economic, political, and demographic. New converts and their current and future families provide additional students in Jewish schools, synagogue and organization supporters and members, subscribers and readers of Jewish newspapers, magazines, and online media, consumers of kosher food, patrons of Jewish cultural events, activists in support of Israel and needy or persecuted Jews around the world and other Jewish causes, and producers and consumers of Jewish books, films, music and other works of art. They provide political support just by increasing the number of Jewish voters and donors to political campaigns. Converts, who tend to be young, offset the loss of Jewish numbers due to an aging population.
Converts serve as extraordinarily good role models for unconverted Gentile partners in an intermarriage, Gentiles considering marriage to someone Jewish, those without any current religious affiliation considering Judaism, and people who are brand new converts. Seeing successful, happy, spiritually-fulfilled converts makes it easier for those intermarried Gentiles who voluntarily choose to explore Judaism to do so. Considering Judaism becomes easier and more acceptable the more people do it.
Converts help born Jews in many ways. More than one born Jewish spouse of a convert has re-discovered appealing aspects of the Jewish heritage by watching the convert learn about Judaism. Seeing Gentiles become Jewish makes born Jews proud (or, in some cases, amazed) that people want to attach themselves to the Jewish community. The act of becoming Jewish, after all, makes the act of staying Jewish simultaneously easier and more precious. Additionally, in welcoming converts born Jews re-connect to a time in Jewish history when converts were actively welcomed and chose Judaism in large numbers in an era before persecution forced the Jewish community to stop seeking converts. The communal curiosity about conversion leads Jews back to the Talmud and other foundational Jewish texts that include many passages welcoming converts.
Judaism is not a commodity, but it is instructive to consider a commercial comparison. When, for example, someone creates an advertisement for a product, the advertiser certainly wants to attract new customers. But the advertiser has another goal as well. That goal is to convince current customers that the choice they make to continue purchasing and consuming that product is a good one. Indeed, the new customers validate the choice of continuing to use the product for the continuing customers. Similarly, letting those involved in an interfaith relationship, those with Jewish ancestors, and those without another religious affiliation exploring Judaism know that should they voluntarily choose to become Jewish we will welcome them and stand ready to help them tells “current customers” of Judaism that their choice to remain Jewish is a desirable one.
Finally, converts can provide a significant agenda for the American Jewish community. American Jews historically formed an agenda grounded in their initial American memory of immigrant life and based on their struggle against full assimilation into American society and their assertion of Jewish interests. American Jews are searching for a purpose to their Jewish lives beyond these now distant immigrant memories and these familiar purposes. Welcoming new Jews can provide such a purpose. Conversionary activities such as preparing to work with converts by studying Judaism and Jewish history and texts, teaching potential converts, serving as mentors, and so on provide palpable support both to those who need it and to the wider Jewish community interested in maintaining vitality.
For these and other reasons, it is time for the Jewish community more publicly to open our minds and hearts to the wonderful and much-needed people who, even as they take a sober look at Jewish history, decide without coercion, emotional pressure, bribery, or force to become part of the Jewish community.